Welcome to Chapter 9 of our ‘On the Road 2022’ series. We are in Colorado. “Everywhere I go, I’m in your shadow.” These words borrowed from the late Chuck Pyle’s song, ‘Colorado,’— his homage to the mountains of his state. In fact, there are more than 300 mountain peaks over 13,000 feet in the San Juan Mountain range where we camped near Telluride for five days. There are12 peaks higher than 14,000 feet here as well. They are magnets for the 14ers, premier climbers who bag peaks at that height. Here’s our take about one of the most beautiful towns we’ve ever met. We felt at home in this land where spring green aspens covered hillsides mixed in with dark green wizard hat-shaped spruce trees. Did you know that aspens are among the longest-evolved species on earth? This land sings to us. —Bajada Bill and Cactus Kate
We camped at 9,390 feet at a National Forest Service campground about half an hour from Telluride. Cayton Campground, just north of the tiny town of Rico, has pit toilets and no showers. Our site had no electric hookups, which posed a hardship a few days later. The snow had just melted over Memorial weekend days before. Our site was surrounded by several irrigation ditches freshly dug to drain off the snowmelt. Surrounded by tall spruce trees, we didn’t get much sun.
The first morning we woke up, there was ice in our water jug, which we’d left on the picnic table the night before. We were happy to see a Western Tanager land on a nearby branch. This little bird, we believe, brings the spirit of my mama Helen, who passed away in January 2012.
Wishing to warm up, we drove north on State Hwy. 145 to Telluride and goggled at the spring green aspens growing on the hills.
Our first morning in Telluride, Google sent us to Baked in Telluride, a busy eatery, which processes a helluva lot of food and customers quickly. By the way, Telluride’s name is not derived from the popular play on words: “To hell you ride,” but is taken from the word tellurium, a gold-bearing compound called Telluride. Gold and silver mining are part of Telluride’s heritage and the industry has left toxins, which are now being treated through EPA superfunds. More about that later.
On the covered deck at Baked in Telluride, we talked to a pair of locals sitting near our outdoor table. They told us they like to sit around smoking pot, complaining about the tourists. How, in the 1970’s, the older gent we chatted with, bought his place for $10,000. They mentioned the pollution left by the mining tailings at the end of town. They also gave us some good tips on visiting the true heart of Telluride, including walking along the San Miguel River Trail to the Town Park.
Later, Bill said that this area is like Marilyn Monroe, where the beauty is so incredible that everybody wants a piece of her.
Telluride is fairytale beautiful with high peaks rising out of a box canyon with tall waterfalls framing Victorian-style houses that are fetching million-dollar-plus price tags these days.
Opposed to the staggering real estate prices, at Town Park we could swim laps outdoors and shower for $5. Wifi was also available. The park has a stage, basketball and tennis courts, skateboard park, baseball diamond, soccer field, dog park, ponds, picnic benches, loads of unleashed friendly dogs, lots of families, and plenty of magpies. Parking is free here for four hours. Elsewhere, on-street parking is metered.
A local dude in the Town Park parking lot near us opened his pickup door. Out flowed clouds of pot-scented smoke. He offered us a 40 mg edible THC gummy. We declined. He suggested we drive up to Bridal Veil Falls—one of the glorious falls in the nearby box canyon. (The drive is suggested for vehicles with high clearance. Beatrix is not such a beast.) We got to chatting about our travels so far, and about the severe water shortage states such as California, New Mexico and Colorado are now experiencing. The dude asked, “Hey, man, have you read Cadillac Desert? It’s all happening now.”
Cadillac Desert: the American West and its Disappearing Water, written by Marc Reisner, and published in 1986, predicted the current water shortage in the West. Bill told the guy we have the book back at our trailer. As the dude drove off with a cloud of pot smoke wafting out of his truck windows, he leaned out and said, “Love you guys.”
After a great swim and shower we were hungry. We liked the smells wafting out of a Colorado Avenue Thai restaurant, The Wok of Joy, and stepped inside. I ordered Pad Thai, and Bill ordered a veggie Thai dish with chicken. Delicious and fresh. We sat outside on a balcony overlooking the San Miguel River side of town. We watched a graduation party, listening to the grads singing in karaoke at a nearby restaurant. Looking down we watched half a dozen teen boys park their bikes, not lock them, and walk off for ice creams. We remarked at the number of teens and tweens we saw here, liking this town of young people living the good life of a close community.
Lilacs scented the air. Yellow and yellow green aspen leaves quaked in the gentle breeze. Mountain peaks’ colors of maroon, green, purple, red and gray glowed in the setting sun. We were falling in love with Telluride.
The next morning we decided to visit the town of Ouray—pronounced Your Ray— which several friends had recommended. The drive features jaw dropping vistas with red rock canyons, spring green aspens, and Ralph Lauren’s ranch. We stopped for breakfast in the progressive town of Ridgway at Kates Place: Cuisine with heart and soul. Our omelettes were generous and tasty. We noticed signs promising workforce housing nearby. Word is folks who work in Telluride cannot afford to live there and have to commute to affordable communities.
We arrived in Ouray Colorado, a town at 7,706 feet elevation. It is famous for its hot springs resorts. With our new love of Telluride, we were hard pressed to see the benefits of Ouray. While the scenery gave us mountain vistas, we noticed giant American flags flying as we entered town. We detected a strange fried fish, mixed with smelly armpits, and stale beer smell permeating the town. Over by the public restrooms, the parking lot was filled with brownish water puddles. We visited the restrooms and left Ouray. We never gave it a chance.
Back in Telluride the next day, while walking through the back side of town along the creek, we come across a granite bench with a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote: “This time is like all times is a very good time if we but know what to do with it.” A very good time, indeed.
Strolling along Colorado Avenue, Telluride’s main street, we stopped in at the Telluride Visitors’ Center and met with Jennifer Antista. We felt immediate kinship with her and talked as if we’ve always known one each other. Lack of workforce housing came up in our talk, as it does in most places here. Jennifer, who lived and worked in Alaska before moving to Colorado, bought her place in Norwood before real estate escalated. She mentioned the 30-plus mile commute each way, and how Hwy. 145 can experience rush hour with employees driving to and from work.
We had just missed the Mountain Film Festival the weekend before, Jennifer said. The institute holds worldwide tours and will be hosting a festival with the same films in Mazama WA Sept. 2-4. The documentaries cover: “…nonfiction stories about environmental, cultural, adventure, political and social justice issues. Along with exceptional documentaries, the festival goes beyond the film medium by bringing together world-class athletes, change makers and visionary artists for a multi-dimensional celebration of indomitable spirit. Mountainfilm, which includes interactive talks, free community events, outdoor programming and presentations, aims to inspire audiences to action on worthy causes.”
Nearby we strolled through the independent bookstore, Between the Covers. Well-stocked with a rolling ladder, the place reminded me of our Langley jewel, Moonraker Books. Chatting with Megan and bookstore owner Jennifer, we talked of the importance of independent book stores and their survival. The place was busy and I was heartened to see a number of families with tweens buying books. Sitting out on the bookstore’s back balcony, we enjoyed cups of High Alpine Coffee, while our eyes traveled up to the mountains around us.
Strolling along Colorado Avenue we ate lunch at The Butcher and The Baker Cafe, a popular eatery, which serves locally sourced meats and veggies, fresh-bakery, and is locally owned. Splitting a delicious burger and fries, we sat outside on the sidewalk enjoying the parade of passers by. One local woman, a seeming Grande Dame, stopped to chat with her black and white dog.
Telluride. It’s a town where the physical beauty is outstanding. The aspens in yellow and yellow green climbing up the hills and mountains took our breath away. The local people create a sense of connection here, as they do in our Langley. We have found the heart of Telluride, I think, at the library, and at the town park. Doing laundry outside of Telluride at The Laundromat, we sat on a bench looking up at snow in red horizontal layers of sandstone.
That evening before the sun set around 8:30 pm, we drove through the Trout Lake reservoir to the end of the road, where a private estate resides. The mountain vistas and aspen had us swooning.
After an incredible day, we arrived at our campsite that evening. Continued itching from the no-see-um bites two weeks earlier kept me awake, as did the 37° temperatures in the trailer. We woke up grouchy due to a lack of sleep. I had kept Bill awake tossing and turning. We have had challenges with our propane furnace and its flame sputtering and the thermostat not working. Until we can get to a mom and pop RV store to diagnose the problem, we prefer to keep the 43-year-old furnace turned off.
The next morning, our last day before leaving for Aspen, Bill drove around exploring other campsites. He found site #17. Ordinarily campers are not allowed to switch sites. But after talking to our wonderful campground hosts, they agreed we were experiencing a hardship and we checked out of site #21 and moved to Delores Creek’s electric site #17. The difference in the qi of the new site was remarkable. In #21, we used it only to sleep in our trailer. At #17, we marveled in the sound of the happy creek, the blooming wildflowers, the vistas of aspen-covered mountain slopes. We learned a lesson: if the campsite does not feel right, see about finding one that is more suitable, if possible.
We drove away on a sunny day, admiring the lady elk in the meadows preparing to give birth. We stopped at Lizard Head Pass, so named for a high mountain peak resembling a lizard head. The vistas provide 360° of mountain peaks, including Yellow Mountain, Vermillion Peak, and 13,188-foot high Sheep Mountain—our favorite, with its multicolors of maroon and green horizontal stripes in a pyramid-shaped face.
In Telluride we stopped at Clark’s Grocery to buy a non-drowsy antihistamine for my continued itching. Parking at the Town Park, we walked to the free Gondola Station, which connects Telluride with Mountain Village at 10,500 feet elevation. Powered in part by wind energy, the gondola serves 2.8 million riders annually, including snowboarders, mountain bikers, hikers, festival-goers and commuters. Mountain Village is full of vertical condos, hotels, and retail spaces. It lacks the bonhomie of Telluride below.
In the evening, leaving Telluride, we visited the tiny town of Ophir, located on CRT 60. We were tuned in to the Telluride local radio station, KOTO 91.7. That evening, its host curated excellent music: ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ sung by Heart as a tribute to Led Zeppelin at the Kennedy Center; Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, ‘Go Your Own Way;’ and Al Green singing ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand.’
Entering Ophir, we noticed young aspen growing and glowing on the mountain slopes. Bill said their trunks are bent out and up in a curved shape called pistol-butting. Their adaptation overcomes the pull of gravity and is a signal of unstable slopes.
Approaching the back of Ophir before its treacherous Ophir Pass to Silverton route, we said hello to four teens walking arm in arm, framed by the San Juan peaks. We did not take the drive.
Interesting note about Ophir: Nikola Tesla helped design an alternating current electric system for the Ames Hydroelectric Generating Plant in 1891. Electricity was transported for the first time to power the Gold King Mine nearly 3 miles away. This feat was made famous in the film, The Prestige. Actor Andy Serkis plays Mr. Alley an assistant to Nikola Tesla.
Finally, here’s the scoop on Telluride’s Superfund Site. Previous mining operations involved the use of lead and arsenic in processing the ore. Starting last July the EPA initiated a cleanup and disposal of lead and arsenic-contaminated soil and mine tailings. Trees were cleared. The tailings were trucked away and the contents inspected to ensure no contaminants escaped.
According to the EPA press release: “The Site was referred to EPA by the USFS in the fall of 2020, after sampling found mine tailings containing high levels of lead and arsenic. A subsequent site visit found tailings along the bank visibly sloughing into the San Miguel River and hiking and biking paths located on tailings piles where dust was being stirred up by visitors. These conditions led to EPA’s initiation of phase one also known as the emergency response actions last fall.”
We slept wonderfully our last night in the campground, thanks to our electric heater, the antihistamines, and the lovely voice of Delores Creek flowing behind our window.
We left for Aspen the next morning, stopping for breakfast in Ridgway, enjoying the best breakfast of our nine-week adventure at Provisions at the Barber Shop. Bill ordered the Farm Egg Breakfast Sandwich, eggs, marmalade chutney, basil, arugula and bacon on a handmade English muffin; and I loved the Flying Dutchman, housemaid pastrami hash with duck fat roasted potatoes, sweet apples and sunny-side up eggs. Oh my!
Arriving in an aspen forest, we will camp at Difficult Campground outside Aspen for the next five nights. Aspen is also a small city with great appeal, as you will learn next week. I am writing this story from the Pitkin County Library in Aspen. Thank the gods for their comfortable chairs, electric outlets and provision of wifi. Libraries are the heart of every community. Adios to all of you who read this. Love, Bajada Bill and Cactus Kate